Landmark Offshore Wind Agreement Will Help Speed its Sustainable Development

Today marked the announcement of a landmark agreement between the offshore wind industry and environmental community that will help expedite sustainable development of this clean power source in the Mid-Atlantic.

 The proactive and voluntarily agreement was born out of a shared objective to speed up the environmentally responsible development of clean, renewable offshore wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic region – a critical step to reducing carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels that threaten the ocean, wildlife and the climate. It was signed by three leading U.S. offshore wind developers – Deepwater Wind, Energy Management, Inc. (the parent company of Cape Wind) and NRG Bluewater Wind– as well as NRDC and other environmental advocates, including the Conservation Law Foundation and the National Wildlife Foundation. And it was sent to the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management today.

 Under the terms of the agreement, these offshore wind developers will voluntarily take additional measures in the Mid-Atlantic – beyond those that will be required by law – to further protect the endangered North Atlantic right whales during construction and exploration activities in the early part of the development process, when they migrate through the region.

 By coming together at this early stage, these stakeholders have been able to strike a first-of-its-kind, forward-thinking agreement that meets environmental and business interests at the same time: It protects endangered animals, and avoids a potential hurdle to offshore wind development from the get-go, helping to expedite the process. These industry leaders should be commended for their foresight and care.  NRDC congratulates Deepwater Wind, Energy Management and NRG Bluewater Wind for having the foresight and the environmental commitment to develop a business model that incorporates extra care for this important endangered species.  The extraordinary time and effort that these companies have put into this effort will help to launch the sustainable offshore wind industry along the Atlantic Coast.

 Today’s voluntary agreement applies to the earliest stage of offshore wind development along–that’s the exploratory phase after an offshore wind lease has been granted but before project construction begins, when developers probe the ocean floor, install metereological towers to gage wind conditions and do other monitoring to determine the best exact location for the offshore wind project.  This is often known as the site characterization and assessment process.

 Why is today’s agreement such an important step forward? 

First, as my colleague Sarah Chasis explains, there are only some 500 North Atlantic right whales left in the entire world, and they migrate up and down the Atlantic coast. Ensuring that right whales will be protected even as the sustainable offshore wind industry moves forward along the Atlantic coast is a high priority for marine scientists, environmentalists and conscientious developers.

Second, the United States has some of the best offshore wind resources in the world, particularly along the Atlantic coast. Harnessing just a fraction of the region’s offshore wind resources could generate enough pollution-free electricity to power about 14 million U.S. homes, while creating tens of thousands of jobs and over $200 billion in economic activity.

By helping to avoid conflict with a key endangered species, this agreement will help speed along the process of capturing this potential.

U.S. lagging behind other countries on offshore wind power

Unfortunately, the United States has been lagging behind the rest of the world in developing its offshore wind resources.

In Europe, some 56 offshore wind projects, totaling 4,336 MW of capacity, are producing clean renewable energy off the coasts of 10 European countries, with many more major offshore wind projects under construction. In China, the country’s first offshore wind project has been built, with more underway.

In stark contrast, the United States does not have a single offshore wind project constructed and operating. We need to speed up the timeline for offshore wind projects if we want to get serious about advancing this promising source of clean energy in America–and developing the jobs and new industry at home, rather than sending them overseas.

How can we catch up?

One of the central problems is delay. The projected timeline for approval of an offshore wind project is currently 7-9 years, far longer than the typical siting process for a fossil-fuel fired power plant (generally 2 -3 years). It’s a crying shame that that it has taken so long to get clean, homegrown offshore wind turbines up and running while fossil-fuel power plants, with their plethora of health and environmental impacts, can be green-lighted in a fraction of the time.

Fortunately, we’ve seen encouraging progress to make sustainable offshore wind a reality in the United States recently:

The Department of the Interior (DOI) created a "Smart from the Start" initiative to speed up siting, leasing, construction, and other permitting processes for wind energy projects. (This is the kind of progress anticipated to increase as the administration implements the National Ocean Policy created by the President in 2010.) The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the agency within DOI responsible for leasing wind energy projects, announced Wind Energy Areas off the coast of six states that are suitable for wind energy development and subject to streamlined leasing procedures. DOI approved the Cape Wind project in 2010. Earlier this year, BOEM granted a lease to NRG Bluewater Wind for an offshore wind project off the coast of Delaware. Just the other week, BOEM announced it will be auctioning off leases to offshore wind projects in federal waters off Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Virginia. Deepwater Wind is in the final stages of securing approval to construct a 30 MW offshore wind project off Block Island in Rhode Island state waters, and is actively planning offshore wind projects to serve multiple East Coast markets located 15 to 25 miles offshore, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.

This is all great news. Of course, as we continue on this faster track, we also need ensure that these projects avoid potential conflict with endangered species that could slow down their forward progress. Today’s agreement will help to ensure that offshore wind projects don’t conflict with these magnificent creatures, and will help reduce delays for the offshore wind industry.

We look forward to future opportunities for pro-active collaboration on oceans planning issues with offshore wind industry leaders, as well as helping offshore wind industry secure the better financing and stable, long-term support from the federal government that it deserves.

The agreement also has the support of such other leading organizations as the Environment America, International Fund for Animal Welfare, the New England Aquarium, Oceana, the Sierra Club and the Southern Environmental Law Center.


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